Like many Asian capital cities, Hanoi is often mistakenly seen as merely a stepping stone to better, more Instagrammable destinations. Being the largest and most easily accessible city in northern Vietnam, it makes sense for backpackers to start there and work their way south. The rapidly-developing city is massive and full of things to do, yet most backpackers tend to just skim over it.
I made a close group of friends in Laos and quite a few of us were headed to Hanoi. We agreed to meet up once we got there. Most of them took a flight, but I opted for the bus ride from hell from Vang Vieng. Everyone else got to Hanoi a full day before me. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal since we’d all be there for a few days.
When I met up with them, I found out they were leaving the next morning after barely a full day in Vietnam’s exciting capital city. I’ve since found that many travelers have the same attitude towards Hanoi. The only ones who stay there long-term are the ones working there, usually teaching English.
I ended up in Hanoi five times during my manic rampage through Vietnam, mainly because of poor planning. I basically just hopped on random buses without even looking at a map. During one stretch, I slept on overnight buses five nights out of seven. It was rough, but hey, I made it. Aside from the 24/7 musky and hazy heat, Hanoi is a cool place to immerse yourself in the chaos of South East Asia.
From partying illegally behind barricaded doors to getting lost and aimlessly wandering the narrow streets at 5 AM, I experienced a lot of Hanoi. That includes things that might explain why people might not be fond of the city.
If you haven’t experienced South East Asia before, Hanoi provides as big of a culture shock as any major city. My first day in Hanoi, I waited over five minutes for a slight opening to cross the road. The infinite stream of motorbikes never relented. Green light? Go. Red light? Also go. My last night, I was drunk, lost and alone, yet I didn’t even bat an eye as butchers laid skinless cows and pigs on the streets and chopped them up right in front of me at 3 AM. Okay, to be honest, I panicked a little because it was dark and I felt like I was in a horror movie.
Hanoi is crazy. But, crazy can be a good thing. With so much going on at all times, it is impossible to get bored in Hanoi. Even if your days revolve around shopping, eating, and partying, how can you complain? Anyway, here’s some useful information.
Where To Stay in Hanoi for Backpackers
Hanoi is a big city, but the travelers’ hub is definitely centered in the Hoàn Kiếm district. A popular spot in this district is the Old Quarter. For backpackers, the best hostels are in this area. These aren’t crappy hostels either, despite the usual price tag of $5 or less for a bed in a dorm room. Backpacking in Hanoi almost feels luxurious compared to what you’d pay in other countries. I’m not one to usually hang out in hostels but I definitely appreciated their aircon while I was in Hanoi.
In a city as chaotic as Hanoi, you will need a little help finding your footing. Even if it is just to meet some people or get some advice from the hostel staff. I bounced around between Central Backpackers Old Quarter (dope rooftop bar and free beer) and Hanoi Rock (huge common area) so definitely check those ones out if you’re looking for a cheap place to crash.
Speaking of cheap, hotels are not that much more expensive than a hostel here. After spending a few days trekking in Sa Pa, I treated myself to a decent hotel for around $9. Finding a place to stay should not be a problem in Hanoi.
The Ba Đình district is a good area if you want to be closer to attractions like museums and fancy buildings. Some might disagree, but Hanoi is a walkable city. If you can withstand the heat and hordes of motorcycles, you will be fine. Most attractions that travelers flock to are within walking distance from Hoan Kiem. For backpackers, I don’t think there’s any reason to stay outside of the exciting chaos of Hoan Kiem.
What To Do
At first glance, Hanoi might not seem like the most interesting place to spend more than a few days in. There are a good number of museums and pagodas, but honestly, none of them stick out. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is a cool place to check out, but the corresponding museum was not that great. Now that I think about it, most touristy places in Hanoi that those lame TripAdvisor reviewers rave about are all pretty subpar. The small temple on Hoan Kiem lake is underwhelming. The only exciting thing about that temple was hoping the red bridge would collapse under the weight of all the tourists.
Of all the attractions I went to in Hanoi, the Hoa Lo Prison, more affectionately known as the Hanoi Hilton, was the only one that stuck in my mind. I went with my friend who was in the German military and he wanted to leave just a few minutes in because he was so shaken. The Hoa Lo Prison is not a conventional attraction, but it is one of the most somber wartime artifacts north of Saigon.
Aside from that, Hanoi doesn’t have any physical attractions that I would consider as a must-do. There’s plenty of ways to pass your time but not too much that I can guarantee will pique your interest. Here’s a pretty good list of what to do in Hanoi for a first-timer.
Don’t worry, here comes the but
Buuuuuut, Hanoi is amazing for a number of other reasons.
On that same boring lake I mentioned earlier, everything comes alive once the brutality of the sun fades a little bit. While all the tourists are busy taking pictures on a red bridge, all of the locals whip out their badminton rackets or roller skates or flock to a random Tai Chi or Yoga instructor and get their fitness on Vietnamese-style. It is a lot of fun to watch, and once you start letting go of your expectations of what Hanoi should be and start accepting it despite its quirks and oddities, you will start having a lot more fun.
I feel like every city in the world has food tours and usually I ignore them. However, Hanoi’s food scene is very… interesting. Going on a food tour is one of the tastier cultural experiences you can have in Vietnam. You might as well take a cooking class while you’re here, too. Eating Pho back at home becomes a lot cheaper when you can make it yourself for a fraction of what restaurants charge you.
You’re never going to run out of cool markets, quality restaurants, or chill cafes to hang out in. There’s always going to be something to do, but it may not always be what you’d expect to do while traveling. Is that ambiguous? Yes, but I don’t want to spoil the fun of Hanoi. Once you stop forcing your trip to look like a carbon copy of the TripAdvisor front page, you’ll start appreciating the city a bit more. You and your friend might end up being the DJ at some random club, alternating bangers from Chance the Rapper to Earth, Wind and Fire, to Kendrick Lamar to Toto.
That leads me to the crucial topic of…
Nightlife in Hanoi
Hanoi is a weird place to party. Before you read on, I have to confess that my nightlife experiences, while plentiful, were restricted to the Hoan Kiem district. I never strayed too far from the Old Quarter so I never discovered if there were any Vegas-style megaclubs.
Honestly, I didn’t care where I was partying. Whether you’re drinking Tigers and 333s on the streets, in a hostel, at a karaoke bar, or at a club, you’ll have a good time. In Old Quarter, there’s a street literally known as Beer Street. It’s a good place to kick off the night and get yourself in the mood for a crazy night out. There’s loud music and a lot of people, so even if you’re stone cold sober, you can pretty much just get drunk off of the energy there.
For an early night, Beer Street is not a bad place to spend your entire night hopping from bar to bar. Once midnight rolls around, that’s when the confusion begins. Your night either ends right then and there as the bars “close” for the night, or it’s just getting started. The bars in Old Quarter close their doors at midnight. Occasionally, the police will roam around making sure that no one is having fun.
Again, here comes the but.
Buuuuuut, the party rages on behind closed doors. The bars and clubs will cover their windows and all of a sudden, the most popping nightclubs look like this:
It’s actually quite confusing if you are new to Hanoi and haven’t been initiated into its strange nightlife rituals. Again, you might not be a big fan of hostels or pub crawls but it really does help provide an orientation to the nightlife. Local staff will know the popular clubs and know which metal doors to knock on. Don’t believe any of that nonsense that the party stops at midnight because trust me, Hanoi knows how to get lit. You just have to know the spots.
The clubs that I can remember off the top of my head are:
Hair of the Dog: the interior is really red. There’s a big dance floor and they play Uptown Funk a bit too many times. Mostly tourists.
H2O: Everyone is smoking or inhaling balloons. There was a live band while I was there but I’m guessing most nights, there’s a DJ. Good mixed crowd of tourists and locals.
Dragonfly: Might be the most narrow club I’ve ever been to. It’s fun but there’s not a lot of space to dance or even stand around.
Tom’s Bar: It was after midnight and we thought we had to go home but one of the workers dragged us in and shut a metal door behind us, giving us our first sketchy Hanoi nightlife experience. We picked our own music, adding them to the YouTube queue. Lots of balloons.
There’s so many more just in Old Quarter that I can’t even begin to cover them. If you want bigger and flashier, there are plenty of other options outside the Hoan Kiem district.
To Sum It Up…
Hanoi is an interesting city, to say the least. It is one that people often overlook for the wrong reasons. Hanoi doesn’t have the stunning nature of Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, or Ninh Binh. It doesn’t have the charm of Hoi An or Da Lat. There aren’t any beaches like in Nha Trang or Dong Hoi. I get it. If you’re looking for a vacation, then maybe you should overlook Hanoi. If you’re looking for adventure, there’s no way you can miss Hanoi.